Sleepers and Slippers: On Schlemiel Robots and Jewish Cyborgs


Lately, I’ve been looking into the latest fantasies about Robots.  I felt a mixture of amazement and repulsion when I saw a viral video about a robot who hangs out and plays little games with a man – like a dog – as he works at his desk.  This giddy fascination with a robot-slash-pet was getting to me.  I felt that I needed some comic relief from this strange childlike amusement with Robots which, in this and in other videos, are being programmed to be our friends.  I needed some comic relief; after all,  comedy always helps us to rethink many of the things we are immersed in and, perhaps, have more control over this or that cyborg fantasy.


So when I came across a video of a Robotic dog slipping on some banana peels, I found what I was looking  for all along: a schlemiel robot.  And what makes this even more interesting is the fact this robot is in the form of a dog.

After seeing this video, I reflected on all the comic robots I have seen in the past and how rare they were.   To be sure, I can’t count the amount of movies I have seen where cyborgs are depicted as dangerous and destructive beings.   And although there are many versions of the kind cyborg, the comic cyborg is less present.   When I first saw C3PO, I was astonished by the idea of a comical cyborg.  He and R2D2 were a comic team and came across as a sci-fi version of the “Odd Couple.”

But C3P0’s schlemielkeit wasn’t at the forefront of his existence.  The fact that he was a humble servant was.  He lives on, but the thought of his death has scared millions of movie goes.   There is something we identify with in the Star Wars version of a schlemielish kind of robot.

C3PO’s version of schlemiel pales, however, in comparison to Woody Allen’s quasi-cyborg-schlemiel-servant, Miles Monroe.   He is the main character of Sleeper (1973), who Rumpelstilskinlike, awakes in the future.    We find Miles bumbling through one scene to another in a world that, it seems, has left all schlemiels behind.

He spills the soup and much else in this film.  While in the kitchen, he loses control of the cake mix.  He literally kills the cake and then, when trying to serve his master’s orders, becomes obsessed with the orgasmatron he is supposed to pass from person to person (to such an extent that the robot loses control and refuses to give it to anyone else).   The more he passes it the more he becomes childlike.  He tops it off by doing a Groucho-Marx–mocking-kind-of-dance.   What’s interesting is that people don’t seem to notice that the robot is not a robot: that the robot is a schlemiel.   But we do.  They are too high to know the difference.

Before becoming machines, it seems schlemiels got caught in them.  Think, for instance, of Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936).


Or think of the first scene in Woody Allen’s film Bananas (1971).


Although it may be the case that the Jewish Cyborg – as we see in Woody Allen’s, Sleeper – ruins the mythology of the monster cyborg while keeping the line between the human and the machine in-tact, the fact of the matter is that it is not particular to Jewishness.  The schlemiel robot (dog) can replicate a schlemiel’s behavior.*  What makes it so interesting is that instead of having a normally functioning robot, the fall of the schlemiel robot seems to indicate its finitude.  Like us, it fails (falls).

But isn’t it the case that no robot is designed to fail?  Robots are designed to perform certain specified functions.  It can be programed to respond to the environment in a certain way.  But can it be programed to be a schlemiel?  That, it seems, is impossible.

…unless we are talking about a robot that is programmed to constantly malfunction and…like Allen’s quasi-cyborg ….spill the soup slip on a banana peel…at every turn.  Regardless, like Allen’s Miles Monroe, the cyborg schlemiel may just  be another sleeper (day-dreamer) and…a slipper.

*If the robot is a dog, a cat, or a monkey, the comic effect might pass.   But what if it was a mechanical schlemiel spider or rat?  Would we feel the same?

3 thoughts on “Sleepers and Slippers: On Schlemiel Robots and Jewish Cyborgs

  1. Quick question.

    Even though I’m not Jewish (for whatever records may be kept, I was raised Lutheran), one thing puzzles me: if there were Jewish cyborgs, wouldn’t they have to have hard-coded programming that would make them power down on Saturdays (and then power back up on Sunday) in observation of the Sabbath?

      • Not only that, but in the case of Orthodox Jewish cyborgs, not only would powering down on Saturdays in observation of the Sabbath (or Shabbat, I believe it’s called) apply, I think when it comes to needing to download, install and apply software updates/upgrades (or firmware updates/uprgades [a firmware update is basically an improvement to the way the OS functions & interacts with programming and other operating systems], too), they’d have to be factory-programmed to check the software’s security certificates & confirm it as kosher, prior to downloading.

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